Microsoft Silverlight Strategy


Apparently I wasn’t the only one to notice the lack of vigour behind the Silverlight marketing machine at the PDC last week.  Indeed, that and Bob Moglia’s declarations triggered one of those cyber-tsunami internet is famous for.

Moglia, Microsoft President in charge of server and tools business, made an adjustment statement on his blog yesterday, in order to rectify some things.

Basically, he found people jumped to the conclusion of “Silverlight is dead” pretty fast from his “Silverlight is our development platform for Windows Phone” declaration.  He also emphasizes a few points.  First that SIlverlight is very important and strategic for Microsoft as a cross-browser / cross-browser engine and that’s the de-facto development platform of Windows 7 Phone.

He also shared the strategy of Microsoft on Silverlight.  Basically, Microsoft is observing trends and are trying to “optimize around” those trends:

  • Customers are demanding the richest possible client experiences, and developers are increasingly looking to build premium, tailored experiences optimized for specific devices.
  • Customers want to be able to deliver client experiences that are optimized for specific form factors.
  • Media delivery across the Internet continues to accelerate dramatically.  Customers want HD, studio quality, premium media content.
  • Lastly, there has been massive growth in the breadth and diversity of devices made by a wide variety of vendors providing both open and closed systems.

Basically, the first three points reinforce the importance of Silverlight.  Microsoft sees the number of devices and form factor increasing and wants its developer base to be able to deliver premium experience on those devices.

The fourth point reinforces the importance of HTML 5:

When we started Silverlight, the number of unique/different Internet-connected devices in the world was relatively small, and our goal was to provide the most consistent, richest experience across those devices.  But the world has changed.  As a result, getting a single runtime implementation installed on every potential device is practically impossible.  We think HTML will provide the broadest, cross-platform reach across all these devices.  At Microsoft, we’re committed to building the world’s best implementation of HTML 5 for devices running Windows, and at the PDC, we showed the great progress we’re making on this with IE 9.

The purpose of Silverlight has never been to replace HTML, but rather to do the things that HTML (and other technologies) can’t, and to do so in a way that’s easy for developers to use.  Silverlight enables great client app and media experiences.  It’s now installed on two-thirds of the world’s computers, and more than 600,000 developers currently build software using it.  Make no mistake; we’ll continue to invest in Silverlight and enable developers to build great apps and experiences with it in the future.

For me this shades a fair bit of light on the matter.  The way I interpret the strategy is:

  • Silverlight is Microsoft platform to deliver rich experience on different form factors
  • HTML 5 is the platform to use wherever Silverlight isn’t available:  it offer broader reach.

For those worries about the disappearance of Silverlight, just think about the movies.  Yes HTML 5 has a movie tag, but from what heard from media content expert, the capacity of HTML 5 is light years for Silverlight’s and…  HTML 5 isn’t a standard yet and won’t be before 2022.  The spec is implemented by quite a few browsers but with different degree of completeness, performance and compatibility.

The last paragraph of Moglia’s blog (quoted above here) is quite interesting:  from the time Silverlight was incepted to the time it started to have a good market penetration (now), the market (and/or Microsoft’s understanding of) changed so much that its original purpose has to be revaluated.  Silverlight was design to be an alternative to Flash.  Well, that didn’t panned out too well I believe.  Except for Microsoft’s sites and those they helped developed, Silverlight isn’t too ubiquitous on the web these days.  That certainly forces some revaluation of the product target.

Doesn’t that remind you of Java?  That technology was build in the early 1990’s as a language for embedded device (hence the name Java, it was suppose to run on your coffee machine), it was last-minute-before-launch revamped as an embedded browser technology (the infamous Java Applet) until it discovered its true mission, a Web Server platform.  The path from embedded device platform to server took 8 years.  Ironically Java did end-up on devices, such as the Android phone.

It evens sounds like Windows, which started, in the middle 1980’s, as a desktop application running on DOS, before becoming a full-blown desktop-OS, then a server-OS and then palm device OS, all with the same GDI+ API!

My point is that technologies do get repurposed as it evolves, especially at the beginning of their lifetime.  With Silverlight on the Windows Phone 7, it practically achieved immortality, so I’m not afraid of seeing it disappear.  I would expect a few changes in purpose in the next few years though.

After all, we are talking about a three years old technology having its fifth major version in a few months despite being based on a slightly older technology (WPF).

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